Profile: William Henderson Graham (1935-1997)

William Henderson Graham was an African-American comics artist best known for his work on the Marvel Comics series Luke Cage, Hero for Hire and the Jungle Action feature “Black Panther”

Early career

A graduate of New York City’s Music & Art High School, Billy Graham was influenced artistically by the work of Al Williamson, Frank Frazetta, Burne Hogarth, and George Tuska.

One of his earliest comics projects was illustrating writer Don Glut’s “Death Boat!” in Vampirella #1 (Sept. 1969), one of Warren Publishing’s influential black-and-white horror-comics magazines. Graham would pencil and self-ink a story in nearly each of the first dozen issues of Vampirella, and an additional tale in issue #32 (April 1970) of its brethren publication Creepy.

Publisher James Warren recalled in 1999 that he promoted Graham to art director shortly after recruiting him as an artist:

I sensed Billy had the ability to handle it; certain artists and writers are great but they can’t shift out of their specialty and do something else. Billy could. So I said, ‘Billy, you are now art director! Whether you like it or not.’ Now you have to understand that all Billy wanted to do his whole life was just be Jack Kirby. I said, ‘ You’ll be the Black Jack Kirby, but not today! Today you are art director of Warren Publishing.’ But he said, ‘I can’t art direct!’ And I said, ‘I’ll show you how. There’s your office; you now have a full-time job. A paycheck every Friday. Do you accept?’ And he said, ‘Yer goddamn right!’ And I taught him how to art direct during our slow period, and it only took a couple of issues — and he did pretty well (though I gave him a nervous breakdown).

In a 2005 interview, Warren mentions tweaking a Rolling Stone reporter who asked about his decision to hire an African-American art director, a rarity in comics at the time: “‘What!?’ mock-screamed Warren. ‘Is Billy black? I didn’t know that. Get him in here! Billy, are you black? You’re fired!'”

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